Will public relations help dig professional tennis star out of controversy?
Two weeks later, and people are still talking about the Serena Slam on a U.S. Open linesperson. I spoke to a friend today who just got off the tennis court and described a controversial call. She said not to worry – that she didn’t “Go Serena.”
There have been several public outbursts by public people in recent weeks and each time, many of the stories were passed along with reference to Serena.
The Serena about which I write is three-time U.S. Open champion, Serena Williams, whose semifinal match at this year’s event (which she lost to unseeded Kim Clijsters) can be summed up in four letters. Unfortunately, those four letters spell a word that can’t be spoken on commercial television without penalty so I, therefore, won’t repeat them here. Williams was subsequently fined $10,000 in addition to the $500 for which she already put on her tab for a code violation (she smashed her racquet in disgust after the first set of the same match).
Williams wasn’t the only player to voice an FCC-violating opinion. Roger Federer was fined $1,500 for yelling an obscenity to the chair umpire during the Open’s title match, which he lost to Juan Martin del Potro.
Williams exploded after being called for a foot fault. While it was suspect to this HD eye, the issue was not about the call. It should have been taken like a bitter pill and the match moved forward. Instead, the high-profile tennis player raised her racket and voice toward the linesperson, and changed the discussion about this year’s U.S. Open forever.
Williams’ image took a hit. She was escorted from Arthur Ashe Stadium (named for one of the most stand-up people to play professional tennis) by a cacophony of boos, and CBS Sports commentator, Mary Carrillo called for Williams’ suspension. In her post-match press conference Williams didn’t own up to saying the things she did. While she eventually posted words about her poor choice of actions on her blog and via Twitter, she initially released a statement through a public relations firm that said, “In the heat of battle I let my passion and emotion get the better of me and as a result, handled the situation poorly.” (Even John McEnroe, a former pro who holds titles for arguing with umpires, likely thought, um, yeahhhh…)
The fact is that when it comes to public perception, written apologies hold about as much weight as a whiffle ball. As someone who spends much of her life writing, I’m the first to tell you that putting pen to paper – or clicking a keyboard — is easy. You don’t have to verbally utter a thing or look anyone in the eye.
Those are the precise reasons Williams could have put this PR blemish that she bestowed on herself and the U.S. Open to rest by immediately speaking up. She could have answered openly when questioned by ESPN commentator, Patrick McEnroe, about the outburst. (She, instead, disingenuously giggled.) She could have of popped the controversy balloon; instead, she allowed it to grow, and now it appears to be sticking around for awhile.
I must say that I’m no language saint when it comes to sports whether I’m playing or watching. I respect officials of every sport, however. Do I agree with every call? Absolutely not. Like all of us, they just do their jobs the best ways they know.
Tempers are not for a sport like tennis that prides itself on grace and decorum, let alone any field of play. For someone who says she values the image of the sport, acting and reacting to challenges must be handled with better thought and execution than what Williams did.